History of St. Croix – A Historic Legacy

by Ray Roman | Last updated on January 12, 2024

St. Croix, a treasure trove of meticulously maintained historical buildings, narrates a colorful history that encompasses piracy, illicit rum trading, the darkness of slavery, and the bravery of those who sought freedom.

In this article we’ll explore the rich history of this beautiful Caribbean island.

St. Croix’s Historic Legacy

History of St. Croix
History of St. Croix

Pre-Colonial St. Croix and Early Settlements

Long before the age of Western colonization, St. Croix had already seen the rise and fall of ancient civilizations, with the earliest human presence traced back to migrations from South America as far back as 3485 B.C.

The Original Inhabitants of St. Croix

The Ciboney Indians were first to call the island home, later replaced by the peaceful Arawak community. Eventually, the aggressive Caribs arrived, reputed for their warrior culture, and by the 16th century, the population had spiked to an estimated 20,000 to 40,000 inhabitants.

The Encounter with Christopher Columbus

In November 1493, during Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the Americas, his crew landed at St. Croix’s Salt River in search of fresh water, only to be met with hostility from the Caribs. Columbus continued exploring northward, designating the archipelago as the Virgin Islands and naming St. Croix “Santa Cruz.”

The Colonial Struggle Over St. Croix

The next two centuries saw St. Croix as a coveted prize, with European powers vying for its riches. The Spaniards, English, Dutch, and French all contended for control, initially drawn by the allure of Spanish treasures and subsequently by the island’s potential for producing lucrative cash crops.

The Ethnic Cleansing by the Spaniards

Early Spanish efforts focused on areas notorious for wealth, and they gradually turned to St. Croix from the 1500s to obtain slaves for their colonies. This sadly led to the decimation of the native population by the early 1600s.

European Power Dynamics

The Dutch and English were pioneers in carving out a presence on St. Croix by 1625. Despite initial peaceful coexistence, a violent clash occurred in 1645, leading to the departure of the Dutch. Subsequently, a French takeover occurred in 1650, with the island passing into the hands of the French Crown and later the Knights of Malta.

St. Croix Under the Knights and French West India Company

The Knights, a venerable crusading order, failed to develop the island effectively. Their ownership came to an end when the French West India Company acquired the territory, only to abandon it after failing to turn a profit, leaving St. Croix as a temporary refuge for pirates.

Danish Stewardship and Prosperity

In 1733, Denmark purchased St. Croix, introducing a period of development and economic growth. Christiansted was founded, and plantations were established, attracting English settlers who successfully cultivated sugar and tobacco.

A Society Divided by Language and Power

While the Danish government retained political control, English-speaking residents dominated the economy, marking a unique societal division. St. Croix prospered under Danish rule, quickly becoming a critical trading port with robust sugar and rum industries, albeit reliant on enslaved labor.

The End of Slavery

Denmark declared slavery illegal in 1792, with a gradual abolition of the slave trade by 1803. It was not until 1848, in the wake of a slave revolt, that Governor-General Peter von Scholten declared all slaves free. British control briefly interrupted Danish rule during the Napoleonic Wars, but by 1815, St. Croix was Danish once more. However, a series of natural disasters and economic downturns plagued the island until the 20th century.

American Acquisition and the Modern Era

In 1917, the United States acquired St. Croix along with other Danish territories, significantly reshaping the island’s future. Initially under U.S. Navy jurisdiction, St. Croix evolved into a flourishing tourist destination and industrial powerhouse in the latter half of the 20th century.

The Contemporary U.S. Virgin Islands

Today, as an incorporated U.S. territory, the U.S. Virgin Islands enjoy the benefits of American citizenship, while lacking voting representation in national elections. Locally, residents have been participating in elections since 1936 and elected their first governor in 1970. Despite the lack of a national vote, the people of St. Croix continue to contribute to the rich mosaic of American culture and history.